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A Messenger with a Message
Profile: Kevin Bolger

New York Sun, September 16, 2004

By Daniela Gerson

Some call him "Squid"; others know him simply as the "bike messenger general."

Nearly a decade ago, a dispatcher bestowed the second nickname on Kevin Bolger, the mohawked messenger said. A tattoo on his upper arm depicts such an employer - as a skull demanding that he embarks on another run (he is shown as a defiant "ghost rider").

The "general" moniker stuck and Mr. Bolger, now 32, has taken on the role of an elder statesman in the messenger world, having ridden for 10 companies. He has been a driving force in developing New York's bike messenger culture.

"I started by giving out flyers for events," Mr. Bolger said between food delivery stops in Williamsburg. "I would find the messengers and then I would harass them all to get together and make it happen."

On a recent Wednesday night, his shaggy shock of platinum hair hid under a backwards cap ("I've been rocking this haircut since I was 17"), Mr. Bolger was mobilizing his volunteer team to spread the word about the Bike Messenger World Championships, the weeklong global competition of messenger prowess, which New York will be hosting for the first time next summer.

According to Mr. Bolger's plans, New York City streets will be filled with 1,000 messengers competing in various simulated-delivery races and in other competitions such as "bunny hop" jumping contests, and cargo contests hauling bricks, carpet, and hay bales.

In a press package prepared by Mr. Bolger's wife, Amy, a designer and former messenger, the $500,000 preview budget is laid out, including $3,000 each for tattoo shows and arm-wrestling competitions, and $1,400 for an art show.

Of the more than 1,000 New York messengers, Mr. Bolger said he could probably name about 200 of them. The current tight-knit and active circle of New York bike messengers is a far cry from his start in the business 14 years ago.

"The first couple of years I was out there I knew the people at my company and that was about it. We just passed each other in the streets," Mr. Bolger said.

In the winter of 1992, shortly after Mr. Bolger started his first messenger gig and when he acquired the moniker "Squid" - a nickname from bartending - he got his first glimpse of the potential for building a cohesive community.

He found a leaflet in the spokes of his bike, advertising a memorial at 49th Street and Madison Avenue for a messenger killed on the job. Mr. Bolger decided to show his support.

When he arrived, others had taken over the intersection, dropping their bikes and forming a circle. "Friends had spray-painted the guy's name on the spot where he was killed," Mr. Bolger recalled. "And I remember someone had a 40 and he poured it on the spot."

"The friends of the guy were trying to make people take notice that this guy spent his life out here to keep this city moving. Not too many jobs in the city that people die doing," continued Mr. Bolger, who said he knows of about a dozen messengers killed on the job. The sense of common mission, he said, "made me
want to do this kind of work even more."

A few years later, after a messenger skills competition in Toronto, he "realized there was a community where people took care of each other, and hung out with each other," and he came back determined to create a similar culture in New York.

For the first race he organized, on Halloween in 1995, Mr. Bolger drew up a flyer: "Winner takes all: $5 down, let's see who's the fastest." Thus began his role as the general. "I was giving out orders to all the troops."

Mr. Bolger's brother, a former messenger who introduced him to the trade, warned him against spurring competition, saying messengers racing through the city would result in casualties.

But the Halloween fun ride, which regularly draws about 100 riders from across the East Coast, and the Warrior, April Fool's, and other rides that followed, have so far been miraculously safe. Generally, they start with a manifesto, where each rider is told the route. Along the way, they stop at checkpoints to collect fake packages or gag gifts - or even bob for apples. It all ends with a party. As a veteran on the street, Mr. Bolger has taken an active role in advocating better working conditions for messengers, whose average career, he said, is less than six months.

"The companies keep getting this fresh meat," Mr. Bolger said. "A lot of these kids don't realize they're working for crappy companies."

"I would love to see before I stop riding a messenger's office in the city that is just for messengers, where a guy can stop and get a cup of coffee or throw his gloves in the dryer for a half hour, because in the winter it gets cold," he said, adding, "And a rating system for the different companies...I think eventually if we did it right we could make the owners accountable."

He may be an old man in the messenger world, but Mr. Bolger has no plans to retire anytime soon. "I love riding my bike. I love the four seasons. I love going into the same buildings. In one day as a messenger in New York you see more of it than most people in Manhattan do in their whole lives. You see thousands and thousands of people, whatever crazy events go on in the city you know about it. You're part of the pulse."


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